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Unique Family Medical Leave lawsuit brings up legal questions

In most Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) claims, employees sue their employers due to a denial of leave or for being wrongfully terminated for taking FMLA leave. However, in one recent lawsuit, the employee had a different kind of concern — privacy.

The FMLA allows employers to surveil employees whom they suspect are abusing their leave, but in this case, the employer went too far.

Employer conducted surveillance to retaliate against the employee

The employee's lawsuit claimed that prior to taking his FMLA leave, he complained that his co-workers and supervisor had been watching pornography via their work computers. The complaint alleged that the supervisor decided to conduct surveillance on the plaintiff's FMLA time away from work — not due to a reasonable suspicion of abuse — but to cause the employee stress in retaliation for his reporting the pornographic abuses of his supervisor and co-workers. The lawsuit also claimed that the surveillance was also a form of retaliation for his decision to take FMLA leave.

The plaintiff in the lawsuit alleged that there was no evidence that warranted his surveillance, and that the entire issue was born from the complaint he made against his supervisor some years earlier.

The court decided in favor of the surveilled employee in this case, ruling that there was no good reason for surveilling his period of FMLA leave. Also, the court stated that if the employer "had doubt about the validity of Walker's medical condition, they did not simply request another medical opinion as contemplated by the [FMLA] regulations."

When can employers lawfully surveil FMLA leave?

In order for an objective basis for FMLA leave surveillance to exist, certain factors like the following should be present:

  • Inconsistencies in the reason for FMLA leave.
  • Changes in frequency and/or duration of medical absences, resulting in suspicion.
  • Information received from co-workers regarding misuse of leave.
  • Suspicious absence patterns.

Were your FMLA rights infringed?

There are many ways that employee rights get infringed regarding FMLA, but in many instances, employees do not realize that the infringement occurred. If you have any suspicion that your employer isn't treating you fairly regarding FMLA leave, you should learn about your legal rights and options.

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